The future of propaganda may in part be location-based. By attending a political rally, users may be targeted for advertisements by the politician they came to see—and by their opponents. Or more perniciously, visiting a clinic could make a person a target for anti-vaccination propaganda.
Location-based targeting is nothing new in the ad industry, and just as advertising techniques provided the inspiration for many of tactics used by Russia to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, the cutting edge in the ad industry may now inform the way propaganda and disinformation are reaching the individual citizen.
In a recent interview with our research team, a political consultant laid out the future of location-based propaganda: “We’ll work with a company, we’ll give them an address, they’ll draw a perimeter around an area …. We say, ‘I want everyone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue between December 31 of 2019 and January 1 of 2020, and they will actually pull all the mobile device IDs, unique to your personal cell phone.” He elaborated: “Then we can upload that list into Facebook or into other ad platforms to target them directly. Or use that mobile device id to feed it to one of our data partners who can then pull data insights for users who were in that venue.”
In the last five years there has been a dramatic rise in global concern over illicit socio-political uses of digital technology and citizens’ personal data, and what we are calling “geo-propaganda” is the latest of these tactics to combine personal data with pernicious online advertising tactics in order to spread propaganda. Geo-propaganda refers to the novel use of geofencing and other mechanisms to gather digital location-tracking data and to then use that data in political messaging and advertising across a variety of platforms.
Versions of this type of location-data oriented messaging have existed, in U.S. politics and internationally, for several years. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, location data has never been more sensitive, nor more actively used by companies and public-health agencies trying to do digital contact tracing and outbreak tracking. It’s crucial that we ask tough questions now about how COVID-related location data collection practices may continue to be used in the future in order to put a stop to unfettered surveillance and propaganda in years to come.
From the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the 2019 Indian general election, political operatives have actively worked to combine personal data with pernicious online advertising tactics in order to spread various forms of computational propaganda. The confluence of big data, advanced automated and artificially intelligent software and many-to-many social media platforms allow political campaigns and other powerful political actors to more effectively manipulate public opinion.
Geofencing represents the likely next turn in how political advertisers will leverage personal data to target global publics with individualized propaganda. Broadly speaking, the technology “allows for timely message delivery to the visitors of predefined target areas”. In many cases, third part cell phone applications—many of which constantly track our location—sell information on peoples’ whereabouts to advertisers in near real-time. In these situations, apps track individuals’ location via GPS, WiFi, radio-frequency identification (RFID), or other cellular data signals and work with advertisers—internally within the app or externally on other platforms—to send users location-specific messages. A ride-share application might, for instance, deliver third-party business promotions to someone during based upon their location and the location of the driver.
In many cases, third-party cellphone applications—many of which constantly track our location—sell information on peoples’ whereabouts to advertisers in near real-time. In these situations, apps track individuals’ location via GPS, WiFi, radio-frequency identification (RFID), or other cellular data signals and work with advertisers—internally within the app or externally on other platforms—to send users location-specific messages. A ride-share application might, for instance, deliver third-party business promotions to someone during based upon their location and the location of the driver.
People often opt-in to geofencing in third party applications without knowing they have done so. This ‘accidental opting-in’ is of particular concern for older smartphone users who aren’t digital natives and for younger users who might be exposed to age-inappropriate content.
Despite people not opting in, U.S. strategists who use geo-propaganda argue that Americans don’t care when push comes to shove. “In American politics, if you poll people they say it bothers them when people use their data, but do you see anybody complaining when they see an ad for something they really wanted, you know? Nobody cares,” one political consultant interviewed for our research on geofencing told us.
Political campaigns are already leveraging information on whether people went to the polls, to church, or to the shooting range to send them content specific messages. One Republican strategist we talked to suggested, for instance, that Bluetooth beacons could be used at polling stations to synchronously record who has already voted and who hasn’t. From there, it would be relatively easy for campaigns to compare that information to other voter databases and then deliver personalized information or disinformation on the voting process to people who haven’t yet cast a ballot.
But because geo-propaganda is such a new issue, however, very little reporting—and even less research—has been done on its use and effects. For instance, how do political campaigns and their proxies (including sub-contractors, who do not legally have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission) access peoples’ location data through third party applications? Are they accessing it legally? How do they then use this data? What role do telecom companies have in this process? How are social media platforms tied to the use of political advertising—including disinformation campaigns and other manipulative political communication tactics—via geofencing?
Many of the strategies of computational propaganda—including the use of social media bots and “fake” online profiles—grew out of earlier uses of these technologies and tools by advertisers and marketers working for companies rather than political campaigns. Political geofencing provides a similar case of campaigns picking up and making use of computational tools previously used for corporate marketing in efforts to sway electoral outcomes and alter public opinion on key issues.
As with computational propaganda, the use of political geofencing has the potential to undermine democratic processes and public trust. Unfettered political use of people’s personal location data for candidate or issue-oriented advertising—including ads laden with disinformation or spurious claims about the opposition or a given policy—would likely further damage public trust in institutions, leading to even further political polarization. What’s worse, some uses of political geofencing—related to election-day advertising, voter suppression, and unpermitted access to personal data, for example—could result in unfair, and even illegal, electoral practices.
Samuel Woolley is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. He is also the project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at UT.
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